The Navy’s Personnel Boss Is Confident Data Can Fix the Service’s Recruiting Woes

The Navy‘s top personnel officer said Wednesday that the service is short about 22,000 junior sailors at sea, and the service’s own models suggest it will still be down by about 16,000 sailors across the force in the fall.

Despite the grim outlook, Vice Adm. Rick Cheeseman, the chief of naval personnel, said he’s confident that he’s got a fix.

“I guarantee we’re not going to be that far off,” he said at the annual Surface Navy Association conference in Virginia. Cheeseman called his own projections that the Navy would be short 16,000 sailors – nearly 5% of its end strength goal of just more than 330,000 sailors – “not accurate.”

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Cheeseman’s promise comes just months after nearly all the services failed to meet their 2023 recruiting figures despite huge bonuses, flashy new ads, and relaxed or reworked standards. The Navy itself reached only 30,236 of its goal of 37,700 sailors — an almost 20% shortfall. It also recruited only 2,080 officers, almost 18% short of its 2,532 officer goal.

“I’m closer to getting 40,000 new contracts because of the data-driven process we’ve adopted,” he said.

Anticipating a tough recruiting year in 2023, the Navy reworked some of its testing requirements to allow sailors who don’t perform well in all areas of the standard military entrance exam to still join the ranks, raised the maximum enlistment age to 41, and spent millions on high-profile advertisements at events such as the Super Bowl.

Cheeseman told a group of reporters after his speech that he’s even looked at the medical exemption process, largely run by the MHS Genesis electronic records system. The system is able to give military officials access to far more medical records than they had under what basically amounted to an honor system on the part of the recruit. The result for some recruits has been a snarled, months-long process of setting up new appointments or searching for old paperwork that the system discovered in their past.

“That system is absolutely where we need to go in the future but, given the recruiting challenges, we need to close the gap on those kinds of things,” he said.

Cheeseman said his team has worked to make more timely waiver decisions and shifted the way they are processed.

“The Navy has been very aggressive in this space, much more so than the other services,” Cheeseman told reporters. While he’s open to other tweaks and changes, he said, “I think we’ve overturned many of the stones.”

While the myriad policy tweaks and rule adjustments add up, Cheeseman sees recruiters as the place where the majority of the work, as well as most of the promise, lies.

The admiral told the convention that “over the last number of years,” the Navy gutted its recruiter community, at one point hitting only 70% to 80% of the necessary number, in order to help fill jobs at sea.

In 2023, at least, the Navy was “an organization that didn’t really actually — how can I say this politely — value the job of recruiting,” he said. “That has changed.”

Cheeseman promised that there would be 100% recruiting manning by the springtime.

“We’re never going to get away from that,” he said. “This is an existential threat. … We can never worry about our recruiting again in the Navy.”

What makes the need for recruiters so critical is that, according to the data the service has collected, interest in joining the Navy is there. Capitalizing on it, though, has become a problem.

“Young people … they’re interested in the Navy,” said Cheeseman, who cited statistics that show “the number of clicks and the people filling out forms” is growing.

“100% better than it was last year. … It’s double, it’s good,” he said.

The problem is that many of those potential recruits slip through the cracks. Slides that Cheeseman included in his presentation showed that the Navy loses roughly one-third of all potential recruits just between scheduling and showing up for an appointment with the recruiter. More than half then drop out after that conversation.

The result is that only about 10% of scheduled appointments convert into sailors entering the delayed-entry program or boot camp after about five months.

According to Cheeseman, what’s missing is advocacy from those with prior military service.

“We’ve lost kitchen table conversations in the last couple years,” he said, referring to conversations would-be sailors could have with parents or grandparents about service.

Since at least the start of 2023, Navy leaders have pushed the idea of having its own sailors be advocates for serving. They’ve also made sailor-driven efforts at recruiting into a public competition. Cheeseman’s data shows why.

According to him, that same 10% statistic — one recruit for every 10 applications — jumps to one recruit for every five applications if that person is actively mentored through that process by someone who “was associated with the Navy.”

That data-driven process appears to be working, and Cheeseman proudly noted that this December’s recruiting result “was higher than any other December over the last five years.”

Since the start of the fiscal year in October, Cheeseman said that he’s gotten somewhere around 11,300 enlistment contracts.

“We have a mission, we have a purpose — we’re seeing it today in the Red Sea,” Cheeseman said, referring to the deployed Navy warships protecting international shipping from Houthi rebel attacks. “Young people respond to that; they want to be part of something greater than themselves.”

Related: Big Bonuses, Relaxed Policies, New Slogan: None of It Saved the Military from a Recruiting Crisis in 2023

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